Steve McClaren's road to redemption will be long and it will be hard but the first few steps along it last night were as purposeful as he could have hoped. The erstwhile wally with the brolly now aspires to be the football cognoscente from FC Twente –and who knows what he might achieve if his young Dutch team continue to play with the verve they showed against Arsenal?
The former England manager's team might have lost this Champions League qualifier first leg to Arsenal but, unlike the horror of England's Euro 2008 qualifying demise, at least they did so with style. For an hour at least the unknowns of McClaren's team pinned back Arsène Wenger's patched-up side before finally succumbing to goals from William Gallas and Emmanuel Adebayor that earned Arsenal a victory they scarcely deserved.
You would give FC Twente all the chances of a wheezy canary in a leaky mineshaft when they go to the Emirates Stadium on 27 August, but for McClaren a point has been proved already. As long as his team avoid the kind of seven-goal humiliation endured by their manager the last time he faced Arsenal, there is dignity to be salvaged from this tie. "Arsenal were rattled, they knew they had been in a game," McClaren said.
For once he was not putting a brave face on another disaster. "We opened up Arsenal but the final ingredient was not there," he said. "We knew we had to have a good start and the first half was important. In Europe against the top teams you don't get many chances and you have to take the ones that you do. We failed to do that and we got punished."
If the Austrian striker Marko Arnautovic had taken the two chances in either half that came his way, then McClaren might have had a little more justification for his rather bold acquiescence with the suggestion that he had out-thought Wenger. He was without his top goalscorer Blaise Nkufo, who was suspended, and the Swiss striker could just have made a difference in a first half in which Twente were comfortably on top. "We had one bad spell in the second half, conceded the goal and that deflated us," McClaren said.
A bad spell indeed, but for Wenger there was precious little reassurance from his midfield partnership of Denilson and the 17-year-old debutant Aaron Ramsey. The teenager, a £5m signing from Cardiff, looked jittery in the first half and was eclipsed by Twente's Ivorian Chieck Tiote, the most influential player on the pitch who, for long periods, looked exactly the kind of holding midfielder that Wenger has been trying to buy all summer. Arsenal's Theo Walcott made Adebayor's goal but did little else to remember all evening.
Wenger said that his team had been "man-marked all over the pitch" but was relieved enough not to complain too much about what he believed was the over-physical treatment of his players. "Twente played with belief and spirit and in the first half they had the better chances," he said. "In the second half we took over, they had given so much in the first half they could not keep up the same pace. We looked comfortable but they gave us a tough game."
Wenger heaped praise on Ramsey and Denilson but the amount of time he spent on his feet in the first half despairing at them giving the ball away suggested otherwise. It might only be newly promoted West Bromwich Albion that Arsenal face on Saturday but they will need more to mount a credible Premier League campaign. Wenger said that the latest injury bulletin had given him hope that Samir Nasri and Kolo Touré could be fit for the weekend.
"Grote underdog" was the headline on McClaren's programme notes, for which no translation was required, yet the first half was a very different experience to his last competitive game nine months ago in charge of England at Wembley against Croatia. Twente ran the show before the break, driven on by a boisterous support who had travelled from Enschede to Arnhem, where the game had been moved.
Twente pressed Arsenal hard, they playING with energy and ambition and the crowd loved it. Come to think of it, they did just about everything England failed to do in 15 months under McClaren's leadership. Denilson was shrugged off the ball by the powerful Romano Denneboom in the 25th minute but the winger snatched at his shot. Arnautovic was put clean through against Manuel Almunia and somehow managed to mess up his first touch.
With Emmanuel Eboué anonymous and the midfield struggling, Arsenal's best chance of the first half came when the goalkeeper Sander Boschker dropped Gaël Clichy's shot and Bacary Sagna missed with the rebound. By that point, the Twente crowd were even singing McClaren's name, which must have been a novel experience for him. Two minutes after the hour Arsenal took a thoroughly undeserved lead.
A debatable free-kick on the right wing was struck low and left-footed by Robin van Persie into the area. Suddenly the Twente defence looked a lot more like England in the bad old days than McClaren's brave new Dutch project. Gallas got in ahead of Robbie Wielaert and virtually walked the ball into Boschker's net.
Arnautovic had another chance on 80 minutes which would have levelled the game but the Austrian striker made another royal mess of his shot. That could have been the goal that changed the game but instead Adebayor decided it two minutes later. Walcott, running on to a ball on the right wing for one of the first times in the game, cut it back across a stretched Twente defence and Adebayor rolled it in. McClaren had his head in his hands again but, unlike nine months ago, he was not praying for the ground to swallow him up.
FC Twente (4-3-3): Boschker; Wilkshire, Douglas, Wielaert, Braafheid; Janssen, Brama, Tiote; Denneboom, Arnautovic (Gerritsen, 90), Elia (Huysegems, 86). Substitutes not used: Paauwe (gk), Zomer, Heubach, Wellenberg, Chery.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Djourou, Clichy; Eboué, Denilson, Ramsey, Walcott (Randall, 84); Van Persie (Bendtner, 88), Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Vela, Wilshere, Hoyte, Gibbs.
Referee: A U Mallenco (Spain).
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